The ridiculous hope of Christmas

In many ways the struggle is real right now in Philly. More murder, racial tension, and hate crimes happened in our neighborhoods this week. Terrorism is no longer an overseas problem: there’s been a mass shooting in the United States for every day in 2015. The economy has not recovered from the 2008/9 wage recession; the jobs that have been recreated are paying on average $14,000 less than the ones we lost a few years ago. Philly’s “deep poverty” rate (people with incomes below half of the poverty line) is almost twice the national average, making us the poorest big city in America.  (Our sister Camden’s rate is 3 times the national mark.) Sixty thousand of our children live in deep poverty.  The Philadelphia School District at one time had 176 professionally staffed school libraries; now there are 11 left.  If that’s not enough, many types of cancer are being found in younger people, and scientists are predicting that we’ll experience dire consequences to global warming in the next fifty years or less. It’s no wonder that political candidates can find a lot of anxious and angry people to incite.

Fear is real, as might be expected.  People are into self-protection and self-medication. Many of us know someone who overdosed recently or is caught in the addictive cycle. Families are fragmented, and loneliness is not alleviated by social media or hook-up encounters.  Smith & Wesson’s profits have tripled in the past 4 months. Many of our friends with mental health issues are having a tough time right now.  Heck, many people are having a tough time right now, period.

What IS totally unexpected is Christmas. The more I understand it, the more surprised I am. The prophet Isaiah who predicted Christmas was part of the tiniest nation surrounded by the largest and most brutal military power the world had ever known. It was an terrifying situation, but he foretold the birth of a baby (of all the seemingly powerless and insignificant things) who would rule with mercy and change the world. Poor young Mary was totally surprised by God’s favor and the announcement of the impossibility inside her. The no-name shepherds were not expecting the sky to light up on their lonely hillside, and to be gifted with the news of the incarnation before anyone else more reputable and religious would know and have a chance to meet him. John the Baptizer was shocked when Jesus asked to be baptized by him, and his theology of judgement and law was upended by love and identification and mutuality. The whole story is full of ridiculous reversals, impossibilities, and unexpected grace in the midst of tension and conflict.

I see these miracles among us too, regularly, in our Circle of Hope. Sometimes it’s a cool “coincidence” like someone telling me they have a bunch of handmade blankets to give away right before a refugee comes to our cell meeting with that exact need. Or two young mothers looking to donate breastmilk on the same day that my new 4-week old foster niece arrives underfed. More often, though, it’s an everyday thing: leaders rising up with faith, compelled through their own struggle to share hope with others. People not withholding themselves from God and others, even though relationships can be scary. People learning to pray because they are hungry for change. People freed up by forgiveness. People making space in their already busy lives to serve because they are compelled by something greater than their limitations.  People sharing their limited money and resources to build something amazingly generative together. People trusting God in the church and forming it together even though “religious” groups are suspect.

In our uncertain times, fear makes sense. It’s the default norm, for obvious reasons. But the surprising message of Christmas comes to us again… quiet, small, out of left field, but spot-on. “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy for all people. A Savior has been born for you.”  It’s still as surprisingly personal and indwelling as Mary experienced it, too: God has been mindful of me. He lifts up the humble and fills the hungry with good things. May God surprise you in midst of your struggle this season too. May we be humble and quiet and open enough to receive the word, even if all our fear impulses seem louder or even more sensible than Jesus. 

 

 

Wanting what is given

I am on retreat in the Clare hermitage, and so I am taking inspiration from one of my favorite sisters in faith.

Clare of Assisi is a contradiction.  She gave up feminine assets (beauty, wealth, family connections, eligibility) as eagerly as most women longed for them. She fought for the ‘privilege of poverty’ like others protect stability and success.  She upended accepted values by choosing a life that looked like restriction and enclosure and daily hardship.

She had enjoyed a refined and privileged childhood. Her father was a knight and her mother was a charitable religious matron. Little Chiara and her sisters were raised in castle in Italy where they learned needlework and music, reading, and writing. She was turning out to be a very lovely young noblewoman until she began the secret, chaperoned meetings with Francis that watered the seeds of her faith at 16 years old.

Francis was 28 and had already founded the Friars Minor and astounded Assisi with his radical conversion and joy and preaching of repentance. Their admiration for each other was consumed in their mutual love for Jesus Christ. Clare was compelled to start an order for other women who were seeking to commit themselves to Christ. On the night of Palm Sunday in 1212, Clare took a vow of poverty with Francis and never looked back:  “I want only Jesus Christ, and to live by the gospel, owning nothing and in chastity.”

For the next 42 years, Clare slept on a straw mattress, fasted three days a week, wore a coarse brown habit, often did penance, and woke up throughout the night to pray with her sisters as they cared for the poor and changed the world. She and Francis rarely saw each other because he would not allow himself the pleasure of her company. He felt that the lovely Chiara belonged totally to his Lord. She was, in fact, sustained so well by the love of Christ that her reputation as a compassionate healer and wise spiritual counselor made her famous even in her time. Popes sought her wisdom and partnership and urged her to accept a more comfortable life, but she would not compromise her vow. She was content “in God, and for God” and she wrote:

“His affection holds one fast…His kindness fills one to the brim; his sweetness is in overflowing measure. Now, since he is the splendor of eternal glory and the mirror without spot, look steadfastly into this mirror every day, and see in it every time you look—your own face.”  She discovered the truth of Jesus’s promise: Abide in me and I will abide in you.

I am encouraged by her story again today because I talk with friends who want what they don’t have, and don’t want what they do have. I get this, too—the longing, the ache, the striving for that elusive thing or person or job or substance or future season of life that looks like it will scratch the itch.  The itch never goes away, and the illusions can be instructive in our development. But when they eclipse our view of what we do have right now, we are like cared-for whiny toddlers throwing temper tantrums, or gourmet Christians turning up our noses at the food before us. Clare reminds us that our deepest longing is for the eternal God who is here. We will not be satisfied by anyone or anything else. And that’s OK because the Giver himself has been given. People who want God get what they want! She was able to connect her wanting to its source.

Clare’s enclosure was liberating, too — another contradiction in her story. She stayed in the cloister at San Damiano (the church building that Francis restored) in service and prayer throughout her whole life. She took no pilgrimages or vacations. Instead she fixed the anchor of her soul in the house of God and God made his dwelling in her. She was his tiny house, and she grew in wisdom and grace. Through her and others, the cloister at San Damiano became a source of spiritual energy that radiated throughout the Church, even beyond the borders of her country.

In a way, all of us are cloistered within the boundaries of our lives—even if they are self-imposed—whether by geography, finances, relationship, jobs, recovery, children, illness, or aging. If we take wisdom from Clare, we could look as these “restrictions” as a holy container for God to fill. My first enclosure were the trees because no one would drive me to my friend’s houses—they were too far away. This was not a bad cloister!  Some of our enclosures may be toxic, though, and may need to change. But I imagine that many can be embraced like the enclosure of Mary’s womb, the narrow manger, the home of a carpenter, the nails to a cross. Meeting God in the limitations of what has not been given may be part of the journey to our own resurrection, the place where God saves us and reveals the expansive gifts of love.

3 Steps to Build Your Spiritual Fire

I learned how to build a fire before I could read—not with lighter fluid or paper or starter logs either! I learned that it’s more about process than explosion.

We usually want our lives to yield instant amazing results. We want to make a difference. This is good, because we can. The secret is in building your spiritual fire. Here are three steps in the process to apply:

  1. Gather your kindling.  Fires start small. In the woods, you need to find small, dry twigs to start your fire. The really tiny dry stuff called tinder is most important for getting started. The basis for your spiritual fire might seem small and hidden too. You might have to look for it underneath your responsibilities and fears and other distractions, but it’s there: the basic instinct to know God and to be known. Curiosity is good enough too. Gather it up and find some others who have it too, like in a cell or Sunday meeting. It’s ready for flame when it takes shape (like a teepee or log cabin formation) with other kindling.
  2. Feed your fire incrementally. If you put a big log on your little flame, the air can’t get to it. Oxygen is necessary for fire and we need to breathe  like that too.  We need to have our questions and bounce them off of one another. We need space to ponder ideas, try them out and see what happens. This is how we learn to hear God’s voice, and are led by the Spirit. Instead of trying to tackle the whole Bible, start reading the Daily Prayer or a book your cell leader recommends because they know you.  Little by little, you’ll put thicker logs on your fire. But don’t snuff it out with giant expectations.
  3. Tend your mature fire. When you start to notice some hot coals glowing at the base of your fire, you’ve got a reliable source of heat and light on your hands. But even hot coals will eventually go out if they are not fed. The way to feed your hot coals is by lighting someone else’s spiritual log. This can look a lot of different ways depending on how God is forming you, but serving others and sharing the light and heat that we’ve got is what fans our own flame. We are fed by feeding.

God bless you in your process—may we grow into a holy flame that warms up our corner of the world all winter long, and beyond.

Rise up, Lord Jesus, by thy life burning

Show to us beauty, wisdom and truth.

Send away death, send away sorrow,

With resurrection, bringing new life.

Words of comfort and conviction

Most of us have complex problems and relationships. That’s why it’s good to run into people with the spiritual gifts of exhortation (encouragement), prophecy, and wisdom. There are differences between these gifts but they all work toward the same basic purpose: revelation.  They reveal Jesus. They bring hope and clarity to the messy and the mundane. They demonstrate the gist of what God is doing: reconciling all people to himself and to one another through Jesus.

Paul was doing this with two men who met Jesus through him. One man (Onesimus) was a slave to the other (Philemon). Slavery was not based on race in Roman times but it was no less evil. Paul’s encouragement to Philemon was to forgive Onesimus, who had stolen money from him and run away, and receive him back as brother, no longer a slave.  Paul was appealing to the Really Real (as some people call the Holy Spirit) in them: that through faith in Jesus they were brothers already. And that this identity supercedes all history of offenses and cultural boundaries. It was possible to be reconciled and live a new life together as partners in mission. Onesimus risked his life and freedom in going back to Philemon with this letter.

People who get into the mess with others like this bring the facts of God’s presence and the facts of salvation to bear on the situation at hand. It’s not making a moral appeal to someone to “do what is right!” It is asking them to stand firm in grace because it is based on the saving power of Jesus. People who exhort stand with others and encourage their life of faith with words of comfort and conviction. Their words are based on the present and future acts of God, like God is with you in this and will lead you into what is best.  They are banking on the fact that salvation has been accomplished in Christ, and that that reality makes a difference for everything.

Some people are very artful about their words of wisdom and prophecy and exhortation, and that can be beautiful. But more than waiting to give our gifts perfectly, I think that God needs people to take the risks to step into the mess of people’s pain and isolation, stand with them, and offer the word of comfort or conviction that comes to them. (As our world leans toward the machine, we need this from real humans even more.) My cell tried it last night and it was beautiful. On the fly, we pointed out to one another how we see God working in each of our lives. It was good to see ourselves through one another’s eyes, and to hear the encouragement to keep going with Jesus together.

We’re not just animals, Rick Grimes

In our Sunday meetings, we’re talking about gifts of the Spirit—-ways that people express God’s nature. Spiritual gifts are more than personality traits or talents. They are basic ways we are empowered to do God’s work. They are signs of being regenerated through Jesus. When we exercise them we reveal God’s nature and ours. We strengthen others and expand God’s influence in the world.

The Bible mentions three gifts that embrace emptiness in order to be filled by God: poverty, celibacy, and martyrdom. The early church got a lot of juice out of these gifts.  They are given with the understanding that ALL is gift, and Jesus will satisfy us in due time. They express true spiritual freedom beyond a transactional relating with God and others.

Americans are taught to start with fullness and strive to get fuller. We are even entitled to it. The growing national deficit and perpetual war indicate the striving to fill up on more stuff and the fear around not having enough.  Entitlement breeds animalistic behavior—the desperation to do anything it takes to fill the emptiness.  We get into addictions and violence when the expectations aren’t met.  Rick Grimes starts off the first season of the Walking Dead with great moralistic intention to not kill any of the living and by the third season he’s doing whatever it takes to protect his turf.

Jesus exposes the limitations of moralistic and animalistic law by offering a way of living that is even more potent.  Instead of working harder, faster, and stronger, he goes out into the desert—a place of lack and limitation and emptiness—to be empty and receive the strength of the Spirit to fulfill his mission. After 40 days without food, he is tempted to relieve himself with physical comfort, ego recognition, and a shortcut to the suffering he will face.  He chooses hunger over satisfaction, obscurity over glory, and costly obedience over the shortcut. He chooses love for God and others. He chooses the unexpected, hidden way of trust and relationship. His victory is not just some moralistic lesson for how we can win our battles with temptation; he is literally doing it for us. He is conquering death and slavery to animalistic law so that we might live in the fullness of the Spirit. In him we are more than animal urges for sex, power, and survival.

Most of us will probably be spared the honor of dying for our faith, the married among us didn’t choose the gift of celibacy, and many of us have a lot of stuff to give away before we claim poverty. But all of us can practice the emptiness that makes fertile ground for relating to God. Louis CK alludes to the emptiness in this clip but doesn’t get to the fullness and power of meeting God in that emptiness and allowing God to fill us.  When Jesus emerged from the desert in the power of the Spirit it was enough to save the whole world. His Spirit filling our emptiness enables us to do that, too.

Born to be wild: the power of serving

We have an award culture.  I don’t know if I go so far as to agree with Jerry Seinfeld that “all awards are stupid” but it is remarkable how communities cultivate the hunger for extrinsic motivation in children by handing out awards for almost everything, including participation. The hunger for recognition seems to translate into competition in almost every industry, and the media becomes a platform for heroes and anti-heroes alike.

Jesus’s disciples were not immune to the competition for recognition and power. James and John asked Jesus if they could secure a spot on either side of him in his glory. Jesus had been alluding to his impending glorification and rising, and they imagined Jesus rising to power like a wealthy king and saving them from their political oppressors. They wanted to share some of that power and recognition and rule the world with Jesus, from either side of his throne.

The fly in the ointment was that Jesus’s concept of glory was in dying.  His entire purpose and mission — the very nature of God — is revealed in this description: “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” God was coming to serve us, not to rule over us from the iron throne.  He was bearing the death of the whole world, so that we might be free to not conform to the world’s systems of hierarchy and power. He was upending the world with service.

jesus on the crossThe word ransom implies being liberated beyond ourselves.  God’s service to us frees us from bondage to our false selves, and our service to God for others expresses that wild regeneration in us. It is not like a person obligated to doing the dishes because they have low self-esteem or their roommate is a jerk.  It is more like untamed love not withheld. It is doing to the dishes to defy the rules of the world and love your roommate. It is like Jesus giving up his equality with God to become a servant.

The gift of service cannot be reduced to a role or a task or a job—it is way too wild. It is not “volunteering.” It is more like coming into your fullness as a Jesus-follower, and you can note its power.  People cry when the Pope kisses babies and handicapped children because people do not walk around doing that all the time. Mother Theresa influenced world leaders by relentlessly caring for the poor and dying. St. Francis got locked in a closet by his father for trying to give all of his money to the church.  Chris Mintz took bullets in his body to protect other students in Oregon last week, and his story went viral.  Serving is powerful.

Our own serving might not feel powerful all the time.  But in the way of Jesus it is the path to greatness, and it does make a difference.  Here are three traits of a servant to encourage your gift:

  1. Servants reject natural estimations of worth in people, time, and money. Instead they express the new pattern of relationships Jesus institutes. They invest in people that others have given up on. They share their resources instead of saving for that bigger vacation.
  2. Servants are practical, like love is. They burn to get it done. They don’t get stuck in sentimentality and they’re not worried about who else should be doing it.
  3. Servants focus on God. They don’t do it for the affirmation from other people.

Servants suffer the loneliness or whatever it takes to go where Jesus is leading.  It’s not Joel Osteen-esque where everything is promised to work out bountifully if you have enough faith or something. Everything will work out bountifully in the end with Jesus, but those who follow the suffering servant will suffer too.  They will also accomplish great things, like the redemption of the world.  And they are often bubbling over with the love and nearness of the Servant.

 

 

 

 

Empty spaces and the generous host

Jesus tells a story about a host who prepares a big banquet. As an Italian, I picture a veranda on the glowing Tuscan countryside.  The grapes have ripened on the vine, the olives have been pressed, and the bread is warm. The best cheeses and wine are coming out of the cellar to the outside table, where friends are gathering to celebrate.

When the host sends his servant out to personally invite the guests, the first people on the list give lame excuses about why they can’t come to the party….excuses that don’t even make sense. One person says they need to go look at a field that they just bought. Who buys a field without looking at it first? The excuses reveal their attachments to other interests or their lack of love for the host. Or maybe they don’t recognize the servant.

The servant in the story is Jesus, the host is Father/Mother/Creator God. Many of the people who were listening to the story at the time did not, in fact, recognize Jesus as the one they were waiting for. They wanted a god who would make their lives work in the world—someone who would rescue them from their political enemies, keep them physically safe, and make them winners. Only someone with visible power and wealth and status could ease their fears. Why would they listen to a servant who was just as poor and homegrown and seemingly powerless as they were? After all, this servant looked just like them. So the banquet remained shrouded in mystery to most people.

It’s still easy to overlook Jesus, or mistake him for the gods of our making. Our economy thrives on the sale of safety, power & possessions. For example, most Philadelphians didn’t seem bothered by the occupation of soldiers on our street corners last weekend. In fact, they seemed grateful for more “safety.” I love soldiers, but it seemed like an odd way bring the message of the suffering servant to our city. Jesus did not arrive with any weaponry or display of force.  He gave up power and was vulnerable to the world to demonstrate vulnerability and real power—the power of God that saves us. I didn’t want to burst any bubbles that they soldiers weren’t really here for our safety anyway or they’d be here all the time. They were for the advancement of a powerful political system that protects a few chosen ones. Without casting shade on Pope Francis—who seems wonderful—there are differences between the way of Jesus and systems of power and wealth that rely on coercion and threat of violence.  If we rely on safety and power (like the $600 billion, over half of our federal discretionary spending, spent on military this year) then people may have trouble recognizing the servant and getting to the banquet too.

The beauty of this story is in the host’s generosity and commitment to having a full house anyway.  When the servant comes back with the report that the guests are preoccupied, the host tells him to go out to the broken down places, to find the cast-offs of society and bring them in. Like Jesus, the messenger replies that it’s already been done. The broken already recognized him and understood what the banquet was all about: the place where we are known and loved and forgiven and made whole, reconciled to God and to one another, partners with the host in setting the table for the next guest. The host commands the servant to go out further then, to the highways and hedges, and bring in all the strangers who have eyes to see and ears to hear of their dignity and belovedness through the compelling love of the servant. The table of God is a place of belonging.

The space at the table is my favorite detail in Andrei Rublev’s famous painting, The Hospitality of Abraham.  He’s depicting a scene where God (as the trinity) is not just the host but also the stranger who visits Abraham with miraculous news. The divinity and oneness of the figures are suggested by their blue cloaks and same faces.  The Father’s light and almost transparent outer cloak suggests he is the hidden Creator. His head is lifted high toward the other two, and he blesses the son for the sacrifice he will make. The Son, in the middle in red for priesthood, accepts the cup of sacrifice and bows his head in submission to the Father. The Spirit is on the right in green for life and regeneration. His hand is resting on the table next to the cup, suggesting that he will be with the Son as he carries out his mission, and his gaze is toward the open space at the table, suggesting his desire to bring others to this banquet of communion and oneness.

There’s a beautiful circular movement in this icon that reflects our Circle of Hope, especially our cells, which are like mini-banquets of communion.  The Son and the Spirit incline their heads toward the Father and he directs his gaze back at them.  The Father blesses the Son, the Son accepts the cup of sacrifice, the Spirit comforts the Son in his mission, and the Father shows he is pleased with the Son.  Love is initiated by the Father, embodied by the Son (and now in our body), and accomplished through the Spirit.  

The Spirit is at work in us now with an eye toward the empty space at the table, always helping us to create the environment for reconciliation and wholeness for all those who long to be filled but haven’t got the invitation yet. There is room for more at the banquet. And it’s in this communion that our own emptiness is brought to fullness, too.  

 

 

 

 

Your mercy instead of my battle

Bryan Stevenson, the author of “Just Mercy,” has worked to free 115 wrongfully condemned people from death row.  He says that if you want to change a problem, you have to get up close to it, like Jesus does. “To me, the Great Commission is a call to get approximate,” Stevenson said.  Although he experiences the presumed dangerousness and guilt of being a black man in the mess of racial injustice, he stays in the struggle and responds to the call.  He asks for faith over fear.

Fear is the great distancer.  When we are afraid, we are tempted to run, to isolate, to hide.  After Jesus was arrested, one of his closest friends and most serious disciples ran away. In my reinterpretation of Caravaggio’s painting, you can see the fear in Peter’s eyes: he is coming between Jesus and the guard to protect him. He draws his weapon and fights. When Jesus is taken away, Peter is left without control and without the person who had come to mean the most to him.  Fear gets the best of him, and he denies that he ever knew the one he loves.

Peter is not there for Jesus in his most difficult, dying moments on the cross.  He is off somewhere turning his weapons inward,  jammed up with regret, confusion, and fear. I imagine that he feels lost.  He had been such a loyal, eager follower and great leader among the disciples. Now he has no idea what’s next.

Instead of distancing himself in betrayal and abandonment, the risen Jesus goes to him. He shows up at Peter’s old jobsite, and in a way that only the two of them fully understand, he lets Peter know that he is known not for his worst mistakes but for who he really is: loved, trusted, called. Jesus is not worried about what happened before; he is wondering what is next. He calls Peter to greatness with mercy.  And the greatness is in extending mercy to others, and leading the church in the way of mercy.

The mercy of God is not aloof like pity, or sentimental like sympathy, or even merely understanding like compassion. It takes action on behalf of the suffering. It covers the distance. It demonstrates love and calls out the best. It gets close and stays, beyond requirements. It is not hanging on to yesterday, it is expectant for today. It is Jesus for each of us. Like the song written by my friend Angie that we sing in our Sunday meetings:

Your mercy instead of my battle/ Your love instead of my fight/ When I’m broken and sore, Your grace gives me more/ I’ll lay down my weapons tonight.

 

Learning from the Master Teacher

In our Sunday meetings we are exploring the gifts of the Spirit, and I can’t help but notice how Jesus demonstrates all of them.

We considered the spiritual gift of teaching this week, and one of the qualities that makes Jesus the Master Teacher was that he used whatever was around him to impart the way of life.  His motive was to be understood by the common people, not to look smart or obtain power.  So his metaphors are of everyday images to first-century agrarian Palestinians.

Last night my cell tried to understand his teaching about the vine and the branches.  I think we understood A LOT, even though we are not first-century agrarian Palestinians, and that says a lot about the Holy Spirit in us. Here are some particular reflections:

unpruned vineJesus got pruned. I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.  We figured that if the Son of God got pruned, we might need it too.  An un-pruned grape vine is a scraggly mess, as pictured.  Its energy is wasted on branches that go all over the place but hardly produce.  Our desires work the same way in relation to the Gardener.  Most of us are familiar with going all over the place and struggling to produce. Some of us have been led around by unchecked desire, and it didn’t work out so well. We could imagine the natural consequence of being like a branch that is thrown away by the world when it withered.  Jesus is teaching us how to live into our destiny instead.  We want to bear fruit that will last, and this involves looking beyond ourselves.  It involves surrender to the Gardener.

well-prunedThe whole process happens in community.  When Jesus says, Remain in me he is not talking about a cosmic intellectual assent to a higher power.  The “me” is the transhistorical body of Christ, the Church—us—together.  Remaining with each other we bear fruit together in the vine, which is Christ. If we cut ourselves off from each other, we can be cut off from life.  The church is the antidote to the wasting of individualism. We actually matter. When we covenant with each other in real time and place, we are getting into our fullness, like these mature vines.  They are bound to the same wire, growing together, submitted to the same kind of pruning, and therefore highly fruitful in season.  We want to create that kind of opportunity as a Circle of Hope, as we submit to one another in love.

early pruningLove takes time. A grape vine does not bear fruit automatically.  If it is going to be fruitful it is stripped down to one main branch early on (draw your own spiritual conclusions).  If it is bound tightly to a frame and generously cut then it may bear fruit around its third year. That’s a lot of rain, sun, soil, attention, cutting, and time until the sweetness of grapes are enjoyed.  When Jesus commands us to remain in his love so we can love one another he is not talking about an instant or easy process.  He is sharing his love that allows us to suffer the ways of love, to bear one another’s burdens and be healed.  He is inviting us to be forgiven and to forgive, over and over again.  We come into our fullness as we are patient with one another in this process, and in time, our lives reveal the miraculous sweetness of this harvest that gives food to the world.

 

 

 

 

The glory of God is the human being fully alive

If you’ve been enjoying hipster Barbie’s Instagram account that mocks superficiality, then you might appreciate the simplicity of Irenaeus, one of the early church fathers.  He studied under Polycarp, who had been taught by the apostle John, and said that the glory of God is the human being fully alive, and the life of humanity is the vision of God.

There’s something special about being human, even when we don’t feel fully alive. At times we are more of aware of being fully overwhelmed, dissatisfied, anxious, lonely or tired, and I think that is part of Irenaeus’s point too. We are not human beings having an occasional #authentic spiritual experience, like Socality Barbie highlights. We are spiritual beings having a human experience, because the seemingly unseen, unknowable God became the human Jesus and shared our fragile, contradictory nature, inviting us into communion with God, just as we are.  In his tender identification with us, “the Word became flesh.” Or as Irenaeus puts it: “The only true and steadfast Teacher, the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, through his transcendent love, became what we are, that he might bring us to be what he is himself.”

People are smart enough to deride idealized, plastic, and staged expressions of #community, and that’s one of the reasons I’m looking forward to the next 10 weeks of Sunday meetings at 1125 South Broad.  We’ll fill the walls with faces of real people we appreciate. We’re noting the wealth of goodness in people that reflects our creator, and the particular gifts we share. One of the best ways to get to know Jesus is through his people, his beautiful body.  Of course we’re not perfect, whatever that means — we are human. Being in Christ as a human means that we are each empowered with spiritual gifts to do what we’re given to do. I suspect that many of our gifts are yet to be discovered, especially as we grow and change and meet new partners. As we offer our gifts faithfully we are creating a movement that is changing the world.

last supperIf you want to know more about your spiritual gifts you could take this test. Another good way to explore them is on Sunday evenings at 1125 S. Broad, and here’s your invitation.  The 25 spiritual gifts mentioned in the Bible are not the full extent of how God has gifted people to serve, and we won’t have time to cover them all thoroughly.  But we could grow in gratitude and wonder as we glimpse the glory of God in one another, and maybe even see our own reflection in the face of Christ.  #fully human #fully alive

 

God helps those who ask

It’s been said that women are less likely to ask for what they want, while men are more likely to take it or negotiate for it.  I generally dislike gender stereotypes because they tend to make the outliers feel like weirdos, but the research is compelling on this one. Top universities have been using the findings of economics professor Linda Babcock in her book Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide to address the trend of socialization and organizational dynamics that results in women being paid more than half a million dollars less than their male counterparts over the course of their working careers.

The answer is probably not for girls to be socialized exactly as boys have been, and competing in the market economy is hardly the goal of life, in my opinion. But I am interested in the difficulty of asking.  In and beyond our jobs, I doubt that asking for what we need and want is easy for most women or men.  It requires vulnerability and humility and risks rejection and disappointment—or so we’ve experienced.  Most of us have learned that relying on ourselves is generally the best bet.  God helps those who helps themselves, right?

Not really. Seems to me that God helps everyone, and particularly those who ask. All over the Bible I find encouragement to ask for what I need. There’s even a story about a woman who negotiated with Jesus for a “crumb” from his table.  She was looking for healing for her demon-possessed daughter and Jesus seemed to be ignoring her.  But she kept asking, “Lord, help me!”  Even when his response was not affirmative, she argued and claimed that she was worth getting at least a crumb from his table.  Jesus saw her faith and healed her daughter.

We will not always remember our worth or or have faith in God’s generosity, and thankfully God’s grace is not dependent on our insight or perseverance. But we may as well ask. We have wounds to be healed, and so do the people around us. Asking and trusting God for what we need unleashes the power of God in us and through us. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13).

I have friends who say that they never pray for themselves because it’s too selfish. Maybe that’s noble, but I doubt it. I need help every day, as soon as I wake up.  “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” (James 1:5). I need to remember who am I in Christ and find myself in the flow of his great love and partnership.

So here’s my big ask for today; maybe you want to pray with me: Lord, may our Circle of Hope include the next person who is looking for you. We want to do your person-to-person loving. Heal our wounds and renew our hope. Help us to dismantle evil by the power of the Spirit. Give us your imagination for ourselves and our future, and bring all people together to be Your living body here on earth.  

Why is Jesus taking risks?

I took some dumb risks for adventure as a teenager. I worked as the Director of Ropes and Rec for a wilderness camp during college, and on the weekends the staff liked to test the limits of our skills and stamina.  One weekend we drove out into the wilderness of West Virgina with a cave map, hiked a few miles into the woods, and started digging at a particular spot off the trail.  Sure enough, the ground opened up to a dark, wet cavern.  Not knowing anything about the cave or letting anybody know where we were (these were pre-cell-phone days) we set up a top rope and belayed 100 feet or so down inside.  After a few hours of spelunking around, we were freezing in our shorts and Tshirts and ready to see the light of day again.  We had one pair of jumar ascension devices to get back up the rope, essential tools for ascending slick wet rock faces that can’t be grabbed.  My friend Crystal ascended first and got her hair stuck in the jumars.  She hung there for awhile before the best climber among us was able to climb up to her and free her by cutting her hair off.  The rest of us shivered in the river at the bottom in thin aluminum safety blankets for what seemed like hours while they figured out how to get the jumars working again.  Several of our headlamps went out in the process.  It was late into the night and we were near hypothermic before we got out of that cavern and laughed our way home with relief.

Today I look to Jesus to discern what kind of risks to take, and how to take them.  Jesus is taking risks, but for different reasons and with better results.

Self-centeredness seems to motivate much of the risk-taking in the world.  Many people who take risks for adventure—mountain climbers, explorers, stunt-people, world-record breakers—are trying to prove their personal prowess.  People who take risks for euphoria, those transcendent feelings that numb other emotions, often end up addicted and in a wake of broken relationships.  People who take risks for success—perhaps like the hard-worked employees at Amazon—are driven by the affirmation of an ideal or status or financial “security.”

Jesus is taking risks for others.  His motivation for risk-taking is always others-centered.  In teaching, healing, dying, and rising, he is risking everything to bring hope to the world, to free us from slavery to self and allow us to find ourselves fully in partnership with our creator for the redemption of all of creation.

In risking to relate to each of us, although we can ignore or reject him, he exposes the smallness and self-centeredness of risking only for our family and friends and people who love us back:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)

“Perfect” according to Jesus, seems to involve a generous and radical love for the whole world.  That is exactly what the church is designed to do—to love and include those who aren’t “our own people.”  We can’t do it fully on our own as individuals, and that’s why we are organized as a Circle of Hope.  Together we risk to relate to the next person who is looking for Jesus, or the next 1000 people.  Doing it together means that not everyone has to be a super social extrovert.  Some people will clean the meeting space, pay the bills, work the technology.  But we do need to talk to each other. In taking the risk together to be a people, we expose the lie of privatized religion and get into the kind of love that Jesus is actually demonstrating.

Jesus doesn’t take risks on his own, either.  He looks to the Father for direction, identity, purpose, communion, and rest.  In a very real sense, then, there is safety in his risk-taking.  Even as he is risking everything, no power on earth or heaven can take him out of the Father’s hand.  He is truly safe in that love, the eternal reality of that basic relationship, no matter what he endures.  There is safety for us in obedience to God, too.  Being “in Christ” brings safety and risk together.

Our country seems bent on ensuring safety these days, a fearful reaction to all we can’t control. Think about the emphasis in the last 50 years on homeland security, surveillance cameras, seatbelt and helmet laws, personal injury lawsuits.  Our leaders seem to be obsessed with protecting what’s “ours” and keeping others out. We keep building prisons for a prison population that has quadrupled since 1980.  We’ve seen police-state interventions to crime that seem intended to intimidate and silence the populous back into individualized pods.  And the market economy gives us lots of toys to play with there, for those that can afford to play.

What’s interesting is that the more “safety”-dazed Americans become, the more people are drawn into high-risk behaviors of all kinds.  We’re seeing a wave of feel-good addictions, high-risk sports, gun violence, giant business upstarts. So based on the evidence, it’s clear that human beings are designed to risk; the capacity is in our nature and will be expressed. What we will risk for is the question.  Will we follow Jesus in risking for others, in obedience to God?  Will we relate with those who are unlike us or who don’t love us back yet? Or are we comfortably numb in our family and friend zones with the comforts we can afford, risking only for our own pleasures or success?

Let’s keep building a church that risks enough to be a safe place to explore and express God’s love for the whole world. Jesus didn’t protect a little piece of the pie as “his”; rather, he claims it all.  The Spirit of Jesus can touch our fear and isolation, and empower us to love and relate like that too.